Four questions about chain migration.

What is it?

A single example: Barket Farah, who entered the U.S. in 2016 as a Somali refugee, reunited with his father in Portland, Maine. He has been trying to bring over his wife and three children, who have been living in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Over the past 150 years, the great majority of immigrants have come to the U.S. through connection with family and friends of prior immigrants. This is called chain migration, although usually the term is used only to apply to immediate family members. The term started to be used in the 1980s. The official record before the last few decades is spotty. But anecdotes and personal family history indicate that, in the last major wave of immigration, in the 1890s – 1910s, chain migration was the norm.

Who is concerned about chain migration?

Who would consider it a problem for an individual who has immigrated to the U.S. to bring in her or his parents and children? Don’t we believe in the family unit?

Immigration restrictionists focus on chain migration by families (family reunification) in the past 30 years. For example, “Over the last 35 years, chain migration has greatly exceeded new immigration.” Their concern is based on (1) too many immigrants, and (2) immigration policy that does not weigh economic merit scoring enough. The large majority of immigrants since the 1965 reform act has been family based.

However the dominance of family based immigration has been a bipartisan concern for decades. In the 1990s, the Jordan Commission on Immigration called for a shift to merit based immigration.

A proposed immigration reform act in 2013 would have eliminated access to visas for siblings and children over the age of 30. This bill was the last instance of a bipartisan effort for comprehensive immigration reform.

The best, really the only way to deal with chain migration is through a bipartisan consensus.

Why is immigration so family based?

Congressional conservative objected to merit based immigration during debate for the 1965 immigration, expecting that would favor Asians. They thought that family-based immigration would favor European immigration due to the fact that current immigrants were overwhelmingly Europeans.

How extensive is chain migration?

One report says that out of 33 million immigrants admitted to the United States from 1981 to 2016, about 20 million were chain migration immigrants (61 percent). The largest categories of chain migration are spouses and parents of naturalized U.S. citizens because admissions in these categories are unlimited by law. Each new immigrant sponsored an average of 3.45 additional immigrants.

Mexico has the highest rate of chain migration. In the most recent five-year cohort of immigrants studied (1996-2000), each new Mexican immigrant sponsored 6.38 additional legal immigrants.

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